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atomicsteve@gmail.com
Twitter: @SteveAhlquist

Steve Ahlquist is an award-winning journalist, writer, artist and founding member of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism, courage and action. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member.

His photos and video are usable under the Creative Commons license. Free to share with credit.

"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” - Elie Weisel

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu

"There comes a time when neutrality and laying low become dishonorable. If you’re not in revolt, you’re in cahoots. When this period and your name are mentioned, decades hence, your grandkids will look away in shame." - David Brooks

9 responses to “House bill to further limit public access to records betrays a legislative bias against open government”

  1. Kill this bill: Limiting access to public records in RI (H 5098)

    […] would limit access to what is currently considered Public Record in the state of Rhode Island. Read more about it here. I am sharing this letter to draw attention to this little discussed piece of legislation which […]

  2. Deforest

    I completely agree that “The new language doesn’t broaden the exemption that already exists, but simply specifies a subset of documents that would be exempt under the current language. The bill is more or less neutral as far as its effects go.”

    Which raises the question: if the bill doesn’t really change anything, which I agree it does not, then why is it proposed? What circumstance is the bill trying to address that isn’t addressed in the existing language?

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  3. PinkHatLib

    You’ve got this one wrong, Steve….
    “What the public misses when this happens is a glimpse into the motivations of those in charge of projects and their creative process. The public is denied access to ideas and methodologies that were, for whatever reason, rejected, modified, or dismissed.”

    Exactly, but you’d propose instead to suppress those ideas before they even occur. No contrary opinions or out of the box ideas should be generated for fear they’ll end up on the front page of the paper. Every opinion or idea will be self-edited before it’s even proposed… Play it safe. Don’t make waves. Whatever you say, boss.

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  4. mlarthur

    This is an essential exemption.
    1) Public records requests are routinely used by conservative activists to harass researchers working on research essential to progressive causes, such as climate change researcher.
    2) Research is a long and messy process; initial drafts and early work product is incomplete and preliminary results are often wrong or error-ridden. That’s the nature of research. Requiring researchers to provide these sorts of documents could subject them to all kinds of sanctions they do not deserve, including loss of their jobs, which would not occur if they were able to ensure the validity of their results before they became public.
    3) Many scholarly publication outlets will not publish research which has already been made public, so subjecting research documents to APRA requests could seriously inhibit the scholarship faculty at our public institutions are required to publish in order to keep jobs or get promoted. Furthermore, other researchers could use the public records request process to steal researchers’ unpublished work, rework and publish it themselves, and thus preempt the original publication.
    4) A considerable volume of social science research required ethics approvals and procedures to ensure that the confidentiality of research participants is protected. Researchers are required to store such materials in specifically locked areas, shred them after a certain time period, and take steps to ensure that names and identifying information is not disclosed. We are also required to obtain consent forms on which research participants’ names are listed. Such materials are part of the work product/research notes collected during research projects. This provision would protect such records from disclosure, ensuring that the confidentiality of research participants is maintained.
    5) Administrators could use the threat of public records requests to dissuade researchers from working on controversial areas of research.
    6) Researchers at our public institutions are indeed required to do research as part of their jobs. However, many researchers do research that goes well beyond what they are required to do. This research may or may not be completed with state resources. If a state worker in any other part of state government goes home and writes articles on his or her own home computer, APRA cannot discover that work. But as researchers we would have no way to draw a line between what we work on in our own time and what we work on as work. For example, if I conduct opposition research in my area of expertise, research I do not necessarily intend to publish but which I do intend to use to contribute to political causes, would you want the results of that research to be obtainable by right-wing groups just because they happen to know I work at a public college?

    I know that it is easy to assume that shining the light is always right. But that’s a knee-jerk reaction. Spend some time understanding how research really happens before deciding what should be subject to disclosure–you might be surprised what you learn.

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  5. mlarthur

    As an example, see the current harassment of law professors who spoke out against Jeff Sessions: http://abovethelaw.com/2017/01/law-professors-that-spoke-out-against-jeff-sessionss-nomination-subjected-to-records-request/

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  6. cailin rua

    “3) Many scholarly publication outlets will not publish research which has already been made public, so subjecting research documents to APRA requests could seriously inhibit the scholarship faculty at our public institutions are required to publish in order to keep jobs or get promoted.”

    I’ve read this comment a few times. I imagine you’re referring to publications such as Springer, Elsevier, Wiley, etc. and, possibly, even, the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine that Elsevier set up for Merck after they were sued for their product, Vioxx? Have you ever not been an academic or someone w/out even a bachelor’s degree who is concerned they might have been a human research subject? Have you ever reached a dead end up against a pay wall at 3:00 in the morning searching for answers?

    Suppose you have questions about what a researcher like Sherri Berenbaum, for instance, from Penn State, might be up to? In your category #4 you mention “social science” research. One would have to assume that meant research into human behavior involving real human beings being researched. What about the right of those human beings to know what is being written about them?

    Suppose the funding is coming from a government agency like NICHD:

    “NICHD, a research agency of the federal government funded by congressional appropriation . . .”

    https://www.nichd.nih.gov/about/donate_partner/Pages/donations.aspx

    The person who is up against a paywall at 3:00 in the morning who may just happen to be the third person written about by the research that the person has probably funded with their tax dollars should not be allowed access to what is written? This is how some of what you’re suggesting plays out for some of the unwashed.

    I take to heart what you have written in category #4, however. I think the issue is very complicated. Not everything is a matter of balance to be resolved through some Ted Halstead dynamic but somethings are. I think, though, that it is much more important to secure the rights of the human research subject which should have precedence over the rights of the researcher and the publisher, to money, fame and glory.

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